Brand, Dionne 1953–
Dionne Brand 1953–
Dionne Brand “is undoubtedly at the forefront of the resurgence of black writing in Canada,” observed Cecil Foster of the Ottawa Citizen. Born in Trinidad and a resident of Canada from her teenage years on, Brand wrote poetry for many years and gained increasing renown in the late 1990s for two novels that brought her respect from readers in the United States as well as in Canada. Her often political writing has explored the feelings of displacement experienced by modern blacks as a result of the legacy of slavery, often touching on the specific situation of black women—on “the bloodstained blind of race and sex,” as she put it in her 1990 poem “No Language Is Neutral.”
Brand was born in Guayguayare, Trinidad on July 7, 1953. Her family was a complicated and extended one—a “pumpkin-vine family,” she told the (Montreal) Gazette. With her mother and aunt spending several years in England working when she was a child, Brand was largely raised by her grandparents. As a child she was a voracious reader. “I suppose that little girl who lay under the bed and read books was on a journey, one to other consciousness and other worlds,” she told the Gazette. “In that bed I traveled. I read Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, so I was in Paris as a young gay man. I read about the Haitian revolution.”
Later, in the 1980 collection Earth Magic, Brand would write poems depicting a more difficult side of her time in Trinidad, where she worked as an agricultural laborer. When she moved to Canada at age 17, Brand enrolled at the University of Toronto, earning a B.A. degree there in 1975 and going on to graduate study at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Brand has made a living as an educator for much of her writing career, spending time in many different parts of Canada (and in several other countries) but maintaining Toronto as her home base.
She has also devoted her energies to political activism, working at the Toronto Immigrant Women’s Centre as a counselor serving the city’s large population of immigrants from the West Indies, serving with a group that sought to improve education for blacks in Canada, and affiliating herself with a labor organization, the Ontario Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. Brand quickly set her sights on writing; her first poetry collection, ‘Fore Day Morning, was published in 1978, three years after her university graduation. Some observers have noted the existence of a synergy between her writing and her more directly political activities.
Winning several arts grants in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Brand seemed well on the way to a successful writing career. Brand’s 1982 collection Primitive Offensive was an ambitious work in 14 parts that explored commonalities of blacks throughout the African diaspora, periodically employing imaginary dialogues between a narrator and an old African woman who functions in the work as a kind of ancestral spirit. In 1983 Brand’s activist impulses came to the fore once again as she returned to her native Caribbean to serve as information and communications officer for the Agency for Rural Transformation in Grenada.
At a Glance…
Born on January 7, 1953, in Guayguayare, Trinidad; raised mostly by grandparents; worked as an agricultural laborer; moved to Canada at age 17. Education: University of Toronto, B.A., 1975; Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, graduate study.
Career: Poet, novelist, and essayist. Toronto Immigrant Women’s Centre, counselor; various temporary academic appointments; agency of revolutionary government of Grenada, information officer, 1983; published eight volumes of poetry and contributed to various periodicals, 1980s; edited or co-edited two volumes of recollections of black Canadian women, 1991, 1994; first novel, In Another Place, Not Here, 1997; published novel At the Full and Change of the Moon, 1999; published book-length essay A Map to the Door of No Return, 2001.
Awards: Ontario Arts Council grant, 1978; Artists in the Schools award, 1978; Canada Council arts grant, 1980; Ontario Arts Council grant, 1982.
Addresses: Office —c/o Women’s Educational Press, 517 College St., Suite 233, Toronto, ON, Canada M6G 4A2.
After this experience Brand became, in the words of a writer in the Women’s Review of Books, “a militantly feminist and anti-imperialist writer.” The poems in her 1983 collection Winter Epigrams were described by Contemporary Women Poets as “short, wry blasts of resentment and anger which distill in a few words powerful emotions.” Brand’s poems and short stories often address the situations of African-descended women who remain alienated from the societies in which they live.
Brand’s various academic appointments—including a course she developed for Vancouver, British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University covering the works of African-American writer Toni Morrison—have allowed her to explore the experiences of African peoples through the use of interviews. She edited or co-edited two volumes of recollections of black Canadians and other minorities, Rivers Have Sources, Trees Have Roots: Speaking of Racism and No Burden to Carry. The latter book investigated the role of black women in Canadian history.
Amidst the variety of her literary activities, Brand maintained a focus on poetry. She told the Ottawa Citizen that if poetry was more financially rewarding, she would devote herself to it exclusively: “I would prefer to simply write [poetry]. It would make me ecstatic. That would be all I would need.” The 1990s, however, witnessed an explosion in demand for high-quality African-American fiction, and Brand was one of many writers who addressed herself to filling that demand, signing a two-book contract with the U.S. firm Grove Publishing.
Brand’s first novel, In Another Place, Not Here (1997) drew upon her own Trinidadian background in its depictions of Elizete, a sugarcane cutter on an unnamed Caribbean island and of Elizete’s developing friendship (and eventually romance) with Verlia, a Marxist Canadian labor organizer. Verlia, too, is partly reflective of Brand’s own experiences; part of the novel is devoted to her narrations of the problems women from the Caribbean encountered in Toronto’s closed society. Library Journal, reviewing the novel favorably, noted that “its plot is less compelling than its poetic, dream-filled musings,” and many observers have noted that the soul of a poet is visible even in Brand’s prose writings.
In 1999 Brand’s second novel, At the Full and Change of the Moon, appeared. Publishers Weekly hailed it “a distinguished, visionary work, grounded in the language and legacy of her native Trinidad.” In this work Brand succeeded in fusing her political concerns with the popular novel convention of the multi-generation saga. The book is structured around stories told by the descendants of a fictional Trinidadian slave named Marie-Ursule who, in the early nineteenth century, led a group of slaves in a mass suicide but allowed her young daughter to escape. The daughter and her offspring down to the present day remember and recount parts of their grim family history, and in these descriptions Brand’s poetic orientation again comes to the fore.
Brand’s 2001 book A Map to the Door of No Return was a personal essay that juxtaposed her own immigration to Canada and travels to other parts of the world with the forced voyage African slaves made to the New World. “It’s all about Brand’s inability to fit in pretty much anywhere she goes,” noted the Ottawa Citizen. But that lack of rootedness, though painful at times and certainly exacerbated by the wounds racism inflicts, is one that Brand embraces to a certain degree. “The American classical pursuit of happiness, it doesn’t interest me,” she was quoted as saying in the Citizen. “Because, then what? Die?” That credo seemed to sum up the creative philosophy of one of black Canada’s most intrepid literary explorers.
Tore Day Morning, 1978 (poems).
Earth Magic, 1980 (poems).
Primitive Offensive, 1982 (poems).
Winter Epigrams and Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in Defense of Claudia, 1983 (poems).
Chronicles of the Hostile Sun, 1984 (poems).
Sans Souci, and Other Stories, 1989 (stories).
No Language Is Neutral, 1990 (poems).
(co-editor) No Burden to Carry, 1991.
(editor) Bread out of Stone, 1994.
In Another Place, Not Here, 1997 (novel).
At the Full and Change of the Moon, 1999 (novel).
A Map to the Door of No Return, 2001 (essay).
Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press, 1998.
The Gazette (Montreal, Canada), October 10, 2001, p. F3.
Library Journal, August 1997, p. 125.
Ottawa Citizen, May 4, 1997, p. M13; November 19, 1997, p. C1; October 8, 2001, p. D9.
Publishers Weekly, August 11, 1997, p. 382; September 6, 1999, p. 82.
Women’s Review of Books, July 1990, p. 29.
Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 2000; reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2001.
—James M. Manheim
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